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Sydney

The real story behind a Sydney icon

They spent time in country NSW learning the milk bar trade – immigration records suggest he was sponsored by owners of a Greek cafe in Wagga – before buying the Olympia in the late 1950s. The younger Fotiou was naturalised in 1968.

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Glen remembers going to the Olympia – which was converted from a billiard room in 1939 to serve patrons of the cinema next door – as a boy. “My parents used to take us there, we were going there from the 1970s,” he says.

“It was a huge milk bar, the bench was 12 metres long. Back in the ’60s, you’d go in there and you’d have dinner, you’d get fed. It was like [the television show] Happy Days. It was their home; they owed nobody nothing. They had no debts.”

On the Olympia Milk Bar fan Facebook page, customers who visited decades ago wrote about their memories. “I started buying Cadbury’s snack chocolates and milkshakes at the Olympia back in 1955,” writes one. “I used to get strawberry milkshakes from Mr Fotiou and they were classically good,” wrote another. “The Mars Bars, the mirrors, the ending of an era.”

Neither brother married. John died in 1981. “I don’t know which brother promised which brother that as long as you stay here, you’ll be safe,” Glen says. “[Nicolas] just kept it simple because he couldn’t manage it like his brother could manage it. He was selling milkshakes, coffees and chocolates. Even then, stock was becoming scarce.”

In the past few years, there have been many offers from developers. Fotiou wasn’t interested.

Frozen in time: Inside the Olympia in 2017.Credit: Jessica Hromas

In 2017, council forced the shop to close, pending vital repairs to its ceiling. He stayed. When the Herald visited in 2018, he was dressed for work in an off-white apron, with empty chocolate boxes and empty soda bottles on the shelves.

Hunched, grey-haired and intense, Fotiou gradually opened up in a thick Greek accent about the struggles he was having. “I’ve had troubles and troubles and troubles,” he said in the semi-darkness.

While deflecting any personal questions about his family, where he was living and how he was supporting himself, he knew the milk bar was in no condition to trade but wanted the council to let him reopen.“Slowly, slowly, slowly,” Fotiou said about how he wanted to bring the Olympia back to life. “But not to rush me. How long it will take, no idea.”

As the Olympia continued to deteriorate – part of the ceiling collapsed, was patched up then collapsed in another spot – he stubbornly resisted offers to contact tradespeople or shop for him. Glen would visit regularly to help.

Closed: In 2017, the council deemed the Olympia a health risk, and ordered it to be closed.

Closed: In 2017, the council deemed the Olympia a health risk, and ordered it to be closed. Credit: Jessica Hromas

Two years ago, with NSW Health having concerns for his welfare, he was finally forced to leave the Olympia for a nursing home. The building was boarded up then placed on the market. It sold in August for just under $1 million.

For Glen’s daughter Vicky, leaving the Olympia was the beginning of the end. “He deteriorated,” she says. “It was out of stress and concern. He wasn’t where he felt safe any more. My dad was basically his sole carer.

“[Authorities] said the property wasn’t able to be lived in any more. Instead of getting my dad and him to fix the property, they scheduled him. We [are speaking because we] don’t want him to be the vampire on Parramatta Road. We want it to be the story of Nicolas Fotiou.”

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Anthony Macris wrote about the Olympia in one of his novels and is fascinated by the enterprising culture of the mid-20th century Greek immigrants, which spawned many milk bars, only a handful of which are left.

He knows about the Dracula Den mythology, but says people of Greek background would regard the odd shopkeeper as a brave man from a shattered country. “To me it suggests some trauma,” he says. “These are ultimately sites of great pathos, but also perseverance, and triumph over adversity.”

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https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/for-decades-passersby-would-peer-into-nicolas-shop-nobody-knew-the-real-story-behind-the-iconic-milk-bar-20231006-p5eace.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_national_nsw The real story behind a Sydney icon

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